One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And, the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility. —Eleanor Roosevelt
For over a decade I have been writing and lecturing in positive psychology, bring- ing ideas from the “science of happiness” to college students, at-risk populations, corporate executives, and government leaders. Ever since I started on this path, the goal of my work has been to translate rigorous research from the social sciences into accessible and actionable ideas that can help individuals, organizations, and communities flourish.
My initial interest in positive psychology came from my own desire to lead a happier, more fulfilling life. For me, a key component of well-being has always been achieving a reasonable level of work/life balance, and over the years I had found ways to more or less strike this balance. Then the financial crisis hit. Banks were failing, once thriving companies were barely surviving, funding for programs was drying up, and people were losing their home and livelihood. Even among those who were fortunate enough not to have taken a severe hit, many were losing confidence in a world that no longer seemed as stable and secure. More than ever, my clients needed what positive psychology could offer—help in build- ing resilience, in maintaining the motivation that can sustain individuals and or- ganizations through the difficult times, and, wherever possible, in bringing hidden opportunities to light.
I found I couldn’t say no to clients in crisis, and the balance that until then I had been able to maintain between my personal and professional lives was lost. I was consulting to a high-tech company in Paris, delivering a workshop to doctors in Hong Kong, lecturing at a New York high school, participating in a brain- storming session about the changing market in Tel Aviv—generally appearing wherever and whenever I thought positive psychology could help mitigate some of the effects of the crisis. Even when I was at home, I was regularly having confer- ence calls across time zones long into the night.
After a year of going more or less nonstop, I was exhausted and burnt out. I realized just how drained I was one night, while preparing to lead an intensive three-day program, one that I knew would require me to push my clients hard to find the delicate balance between realism and optimism, between acknowledging a painful present and envisioning a brighter future. Usually I am excited about taking up a new challenge, but this time I was not looking forward to it at all. I simply could not imagine how I would get through the next few days.
I tried to give myself a little pep talk. But this time it didn’t work, and neither did the other methods and techniques that had helped me in the past. I had no en- ergy, and no motivation. It seemed that if I wanted to go ahead with the program, the only option was to simply force myself through it. I had done it before, and I could do it again. I would have to. I had no choice.
With this uninspiring thought, I went to bed feeling even worse. Not only was I unhappy about what the days ahead seemed to hold in store, I was disappointed in my own failure to imagine a more inspired solution to the problem. I hadn’t solved the problem, I had simply resigned myself to living with it. And then, just as I was drifting into sleep, I thought, No, it’s not true that I just have to suffer through the next few days. I have a choice!
In that moment I realized that to a great extent how I would experience the next three days was up to me. I could choose the path of simply suffering through it or I could choose an alternative path—one where I would draw energy from enthusiastic participants, from engaging in material I passionately believe in, and from reconnecting to my personal mission to make the world a better place through education. Choosing between the path of misery and the path of energetic engagement was a no-brainer.
Once I made my choice, I changed my focus. And by changing my focus I changed my feelings. A few minutes earlier I had felt trapped, but now I was actu- ally excited about the next few days. I was fired up, and went on to deliver one of the most passionate performances of my life.
As soon as I realized what my options were, I made my decision in a split sec- ond. But getting to the point where I realized I had options was significantly more difficult. In other words, the choice was made possible—and obvious—only as soon as I became mindful of the fact that I actually had a choice. We are used to thinking of making decisions as the hard part. But the truth is that often the more difficult thing is realizing that there is a decision to be made, that we have a choice. In fact, at every moment in our life we have a choice.
Maybe this realization shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to me. After all, re- search in psychology illustrates that about 40 percent of our happiness is deter- mined by the choices that we make—what we choose to do and how we choose to think directly impact the way we feel.
For instance, if I am passed over for a promotion at work or if a new business venture fails, I can decide to treat this experience either as a severe blow from which I may never recover or as a wake-up call—an opportunity to learn and to grow. If I choose to see it only as a negative, I will feel bad about myself and pes- simistic about my future. But if I choose to see it as a wake-up call, I can begin to draw lessons from this setback and to improve my prospects for the future. Real- izing that I have a choice to make not only improves the likelihood of success in the future, but it will also make me feel better right now, in the present. In his well-known poem “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost describes stand- ing at a fork in the road. Forced to choose between two different paths, Frost fa- mously opted for the road that was less traveled—a choice that, in the long run, “made all the difference” in his life.
The drama of Frost’s personal dilemma—the difficulty in deciding which path to take, knowing that the effect of this choice would reach far into the future— resonates with every reader. We have all been there: having to decide whether to commit to a particular relationship, what major to declare in college, whether to ac- cept a job offer in another city, and so on. In these difficult moments we try hard to make the right decision, doing our best not to be paralyzed by our own awareness of just how important it is to make the right choice, knowing that not to choose is in itself a choice with far-reaching consequences.
But the dramas of life’s “big decisions” (which, almost by definition, are few and far between) should not hide the fact that in life we face choices all the time. Every moment of our waking life we face choices whose cumulative effect on us is just as great, if not greater, than the effect of the big decisions. I can choose whether to sit up straight or stooped; whether to say a warm word to my partner or give her a sour look; whether to appreciate my health, my friend, and my lunch, or to take them all for granted; whether to choose to choose or to remain oblivious to the choices that are there for the making. Individually, these choices may not seem important, but together they are the very bricks that make up the road we create for ourselves.
Moreover, choices can create momentum by launching a chain reaction—a series of events or feelings—whose impact is far greater than what you can foresee at the moment the choice is made. For example, if I feel gloomy and weary in the morning, I can decide to improve my mood by taking a few deep breaths, smiling, or bringing the spirit of play to whatever it is that I’m doing. Any of these choices can create a positive chain reaction, putting me in a cheerful mind-set that lasts the entire day and triggers other positive experiences at work and home. Similarly, deciding to make an effort and truly listen to what a person has to say when first we sit down for a meal together can positively impact the quality of the entire conver- sation, and even the relationship as a whole.
Often, because we can’t see that we are at a fork in the road—that these choic- es in fact exist—we are unable to take advantage of them. Henry Ford once re- marked, “Whether you think you can or can’t—you are right.” The same applies to choices: Whether you think you have a choice or not—you are right. In other words, the fact that you think that you don’t have a choice, actually makes it so. The night before my lecture, when I felt exhausted and uninspired, I saw only one way to make it through the next few days. My limited perspective at that moment limited my options.
Not to be aware of the choices we make moment by moment, is to relinquish control over our ability to improve our life. For instance, we take it for granted that our feelings are what they are and cannot be altered; we react to someone else’s behavior automatically without considering alternative options; we are faced with the same situation over and over again and respond in the same way over and over again—as if no other course of action were available to us. We assume that our thoughts and actions and feelings are inevitable, that we do not have a choice, when in fact we do.
In The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Dan Millman recounts a story that he heard from his mentor:
When the lunch whistle blew, all the workers would sit down together to eat. And every day, Sam would open his lunch pail and start to complain. “Son of a gun!” he’d cry, “Not peanut butter and jelly sandwiches again. I hate peanut butter and jelly!” He whined about his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches day after day after day until one of the guys on the work crew finally said, “Fer crissakes, Sam, if you hate peanut butter and jelly so much, why don’t you just tell yer ol’ lady to make you something different?”
“What do you mean, my ol’ lady?” Sam replied. “I’m not married. I make my own sandwiches.”
So many of us, without even noticing that we are doing so, make our own sandwiches with ingredients we do not like. Life presents us with raw materials— external circumstances that are sometimes out of our control, such as our physical attributes, the family that we’re born into, the fluctuations of global markets, or choices that other people make and that we have no say in. And yet, even with all the limitations and constraints, which raw materials we select and how we decide to use them is to a great extent up to us.
All of us, regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, can make a conscious effort to search for possibilities around and within ourselves. And when we look beyond our habitual ways of seeing things, we are often surprised by the many delicious ingredients from which we can choose to make our own sandwiches. Our freedom to choose among the raw materials as well as among dif- ferent possible responses to any given situation makes us cocreators of our reality. So what kind of reality do you want to create for yourself? The sandwiches that you eat are largely of your own making. You have more choices than you realize. It is up to you, to choose.
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What This Book Is and Isn’t
The aha moment that I had the night before the workshop made me realize that I could be playing a much more active role in creating the kind of life that I want for myself. By making a deliberate effort to expose possibilities that I would have previously overlooked, I opened up a world of opportunities. This small change in perspective had a major impact on my life. And that is why I decided to write this book.
The book comprises three types of choices: first, the choices we have at almost every moment, such as whether we smile or whether we take in a deep breath; second, choices that we have following a specific event, such as how we react to failure or whether we choose to compliment a colleague on a job well done; third, choices that relate to the big decisions in life, such as about the career path we decide to pursue or whether we choose to help and con- tribute to others. The book focuses mostly on the first two types of choices, al- though a few of the third kind are sprinkled throughout.
This is not a book about ethical decision making or about providing you with tools for making other types of difficult decisions. Most of the choices in this book—just like most of the choices we face in life—are ones that I would describe as “rhetorical choices”; in other words, choices where it is very clear and obvious which path is the right one to take. Most of the time, we know ex- actly what is good and what isn’t—whether it’s about the way we sit or walk, the way we respond to failure or success, the way we communicate with our child or partner—and yet very often we do not practice what we know is good for us. Socrates’s claim that “to know the good is to do the good” is, unfortu- nately, not true.
This book is not about decision making in the sense of knowing what is right, but about decision making in the sense of doing what is right. Toward this end, I have two objectives: First, to help you become mindful of the actual choices that exist in your life minute by minute and day by day; to choose to do what is right, you have to be aware of the fact that there is a choice to make. Second, to encourage you to act in the best possible way in light of these choices that are available to you; to do the good once you know the good. The book is structured as a series of choices, most of them rhetorical choices. Following each choice is a quote, a brief explanation of the choice, and a story that illustrates the choice. The stories include personal anecdotes, hypothetical situations, descriptions of psychological experiments, accounts of historical figures, and experiences of fictional figures from film or literature. The purpose of the story following each choice is to bring the ideas to life and make them more accessible and relatable. It is up to you to generalize the par- ticular examples and apply them to other situations in your own life. For exam- ple, if the story has to do with the workplace, you may want to consider how that particular choice is relevant to your home life; if it describes a relationship with your partner, think about a similar situation relating to your boss or child. You can read the book as you would any other book. Or you can treat it like a workbook—dedicating anywhere between a day to a month to reflect and act on each of the choices. It may be helpful to you if you write down the choice you’re focusing on and place it somewhere where you’ll be reminded of it—on your fridge or desk, in your pocket, or on your mobile device or com- puter as a screensaver. A form of reminder that I’ve found most useful—which has helped me get a choice ingrained, making it second nature—is a simple string that I tie around my wrist, wearing it as a wristband for anywhere be- tween a week and a month (psychologist William James claimed that it takes twenty-one days to form a new habit). Currently I have a wristbrand reminding me to bring humor and lightness to situations; before that, during a stressful period in my life, I had a wristband reminding me to be more patient with my kids.
As you read through the book, try out the different choices. If, after some deliberation or some experimentation, a particular choice does not speak to you at all, skip to the next one, or repeat a choice that you have already dealt with. Return to the choice that you skipped at a later date, to see whether something is there for you after all.
You may want to select a few of the choices in the book as a subject for discussion at your book club, or among your family and friends. In the work- place, meaningful discussions about choices can increase the cohesiveness and effectiveness of a team as well as provide an antidote to the kind of rigid thinking that so often stifles innovation. Sharing personal stories about the choices that have shaped our life can be an extremely powerful experience that often inspires action.
Some of the choices that I present in this book are derived from my own experience and those of friends and clients; others are based on the work of psychologists, philosophers, and leaders from the worlds of business and education. Wherever relevant, an endnote will guide you to sources where the ideas originated or are developed in greater depth.
You will find that there is some overlap among the choices in this book. This is an intentional choice on my part, and for two reasons: first, because sometimes approaching the same challenge from different angles helps us get unstuck and change our habits; and second, because repetition is crucial if we want to ensure that the changes we make actually stick.
Thank you for choosing to read this book.
Choice is creation.
To choose is to create.
Through my choices I create my reality.
At every moment in my life I have a choice.
Moments add up to a lifetime; choices add up to a life.
What kind of life do I want for myself?
What choices will create this kind of life?
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